The city and the Central Park Conservancy are making few friends with their crackdown on musicians in Central Park who dare to make music in one of the park’s “quiet zones”. The city says it’s trying to balance “competing interests” in the park, basically cordoning off spaces where people don’t have to listen to music if they don’t want to.
But there appears to be another reason for the crackdown, at least at Bethesda Fountain: the city is planning to give Dovetail restaurant owner John Fraser the green light to open a food cart with 150 seats in front of the fountain and in the nearby Bethesda Terrace with its classic mosaics. The city will get a 15% cut of Fraser’s proceeds. Time to get those pesky musicians out of the way!
Let me first get this out of the way: I would love to have a Dovetail food cart near Bethesda Fountain where I can drink a beer or a glass of wine under a beautiful mosaic away from the sun on a hot summer night. I would love it much more than almost every performance I’ve seen in that spot. I know, it’s awful to say.
Nonetheless, there’s a real principle at stake here. The city and the conservancy are taking public space and making it private without consulting the people who use the park. Bethesda Fountain is a spot where performers have played music, acted and danced for years. (There’s a facebook group that started to support them, and a petition site.)
In fact, even though musicians have gotten the most attention in this fight, the city’s biggest target appears to be the dancers, mostly young black men, who do flips on the stairs nearby. Check out this quote from a Parks spokesperson to the Post: “Crowds of 700 regularly overwhelmed the terrace, completely blocked the stairs, and those trying to pass climbed on and damaged sandstone carvings on the side.”
It’s pretty clear they’re talking about the kids.
The performances draw hundreds of people and they can be annoying, especially if you’ve seen the tricks before. But they’re usually over within half an hour and tourists go nuts over them. It’s a hustle, just like playing music on the street. It’s a hustle to get a lot of people to give you $1 each. But selling $8 beers and $14 burgers is also a hustle — it’s just a hustle that’s easier to tax and control. The city loves the high hustle, the one that brings in the most revenue and the least chaos. It’s why the Parks Department pushed a plan last year to build a tennis bubble in the park, and it’s why they want the cafe at Bethesda Fountain now.
It’s hard to blame the Central Park Conservancy for wanting to raise more money. The city has dumped a larger and larger burden of caring for the park on private donations — and when those donations dry up, like they did in 2009, the conservancy has to scramble to pay for things like keeping the trees healthy. But it’s doubtful that the high hustle will get them there — people are used to a certain level of freedom in Central Park. The more the people in charge of the park take that away, the more we will feel like we’re the ones being hustled.